“The first men on earth to volunteer to be nuked,C the Air Force called them.
While movie cameras rolled and camera shutters clicked, five USAF officers stood without protective gear at Yucca Flats, Nev., beside a hand-lettered sign which read, “Ground Zero, Population 5.C A 2.2 kiloton nuclear rocket was about to explode 13,000 feet directly overhead.
“Five brave men and one crazy photographer,C 77-year-old George Yoshitake of Lompoc said with a grin.
The date was July 19, 1957. Photographs and movie shorts were soon circulated worldwide. Three photos of the explosion and the volunteers were published as a full-page collage in Life magazine. And the photographer 7 Yoshitake.
A short, genial man known in recent years as a wedding and football photographer, Yoshitake was one of the “Atomic Cinematographers.C He worked for eight years, from 1955 to 1963, as a cameraman for top secret Lookout Mountain Laboratory, also known as the U.S. Air Force/s 1352nd Motion Picture Squadron. His job was to film nuclear testing at the height of the Cold War.
“I shot about 30 tests, half in the Pacific, half at the Nevada Test Site,C Yoshitake explained recently. “What we were doing was all top secret.
“I had been a motion picture cameraman in Panama and Washington, D.C. When I got out of the Air Force in 1955 Lookout Mountain was looking for more cameramen so I applied.C
Lookout Mountain Lab was hunkered in the hills above Los Angeles. Its 40 camera operators were dispatched to Eniwetok and Bikini in the Marshall Islands as well as to Nevada to record more than 300 U.S. atomic tests, starting in 1947 and ending with the international test ban treaty of 1963.
The studio produced 6,500 films 7 more than many of the big Hollywood studios 7 but after review by government officials, nearly all of them were classified and locked away. Only in 1997 did a process of declassification begin.
Free now to talk, Yoshitake remembers the iconic mushroom clouds as a photographer would, for their size, color and texture. “Underground shots you just see a lot of dirt come up,C he recalled. The big hydrogen explosions in the Pacific were awe-inspiring, however. “Those are spooky,C he said. “There is a purple glow in the sky for 10 to 15 minutes.//
For ground explosions, Yoshitake would typically be stationed six to eight miles away, though for a few he was as close as two miles. For the big hydrogen shots in the Pacific, he would be 20 miles out, on a neighboring island to protect from shock waves and intense heat.
“At Nevada you could see the shock wave kicking up dust across the desert floor, then you/d get it >bang/ in your face. We braced for it. We hung onto our cameras.C He does not remember being knocked down from any of the blasts, but livestock closer to them did not fare so well.
In Nevada, at Shot Priscilla, in June 1957, the blast/s effects on animals were calculated. “They had a lot of pigs and monkeys and sheep,C Yoshitake said. “Some of the monkeys had their eyes taped open. I remember going in 30 minutes later. The pigs were still squealing. Their skin was blackened. With the smell and animals crying it was just horrible.C That shot was the only one at which Yoshitake wore protective gear.
The Ground Zero shot in July 1957 was part of a public relations campaign engineered by the North American Air Defense Command to allay public fears of tactical nuclear weaponry. It came in the midst of an arms race with the Soviet Union, which consumed the U.S. at the time.
All five volunteers were working in nuclear commands and believed in the safety of the relatively small two-kiloton warhead. Still, if they were wrong, if the blast impact were larger than expected or if radioactive fallout should rain down, they could perish or face a life not worth living. They were indeed risking their lives.
On July 18, Maj. Woody Mark called Yoshitake in Los Angeles with a job. Yoshitake speculates that it was his reputation for shooting unusual angles which won him the dubious opportunity to film the shot known officially as Shot John, the eighth of 24 blasts in Operation Plumbbob.
Mark told him nothing about the chilling danger of the assignment. “I was no volunteer,C says Yoshitake now. “I didn/t know we would be under it until I got out there late that night.C But even then he took it as “just another job. I thought nothing of it.C
At 7 a.m., while Yoshitake was wearing only a baseball cap, he adjusted his two 35-millimeter movie cameras and one still camera as an F-89 Scorpion streaked across the sky. It unleashed its rocket at a point in space directly over the volunteers and cameraman, then it nearly back flipped in its hurry to escape.
The volunteers avoided looking directly into the blast but gazed upward as soon as they sensed a flash and heat. Yoshitake/s most famous shot shows them, hatless and with no protective gear, not even sunglasses, looking up each with one hand raised to shade their eyes.
One volunteer spoke into a tape recorder saying, “The colors are brilliant, swirling and changing. And now we/re getting the shock wave.C At that his microphone went dead. Yoshitake/s cameras showed the volunteers crouching against the shock wave but none lost their footing. When the audio tape resumed it recorded cries of jubilation and shouts of “it worked!C
Yoshitake saw only smoke when he finally looked up from his cameras. “It leaves a nice doughnut ring. That/s what I shot,C he said, smiling.
NORAD Public Information Officer Col. Barney Oldfield lionized the five officers, comparing them to Walter Reed and others who volunteered in yellow fever experiments 50 years before. He placed Yoshitake/s photographs in dozens of publications and sent the volunteers on the road to speaking engagements. Nuclear scientist Edward Teller and the Joint Chiefs of Staff joined in praise of the five heroes and they were given credit as the nation/s fears of nuclear arms abated. In later published accounts “an intrepid civilian photographer,C name unmentioned, was added as an unobtrusive postscript.
Twenty years later, in 1977, Al Stump of the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner reported that all five officers were in excellent health, and he also managed to include Yoshitake, by then transferred to Vandenberg, by name. “I/m still healthy as heck, too,C the cameraman told him.
Yoshitake retired from civil service in 1985 but it would be 12 years before his bravery, other than the one event, would be recognized.
In 1997, the Lookout Mountain men were labeled the “Atomic CinematographersC by Hollywood producer Peter Kuran. Kuran/s film “Trinity and Beyond: The Atomic Bomb MovieC featured their footage after Kuran induced the Department of Energy to begin to declassify it.
“I wondered who were these guys,C Kuran told the Long Beach Press-Telegram at the time. “The work these people did was so secretive that they never got much acclaim and recognition. Nobody knew who they were. Without their work an important part of history might be lost.C
Lookout Mountain/s 50th anniversary reunion that year, financed by Kuran, was dedicated to Yoshitake and his cohorts. It marked their first public recognition by the federal government.
“As the world seeks to end all nuclear weapons testing and enter a new era of peace, your work becomes even more important. Your films will help us and future generations better remember and understand a unique time in history,C Secretary of Energy Federico Pena told the men. Predicted Charles Demos of the DOE, “Nobody on this earth is ever going to take pictures of nuclear weapons going off again.C
Yoshitake said he held no philosophical differences with nuclear testing back when he was photographing it. “At the time, no I didn/t, but now I do. Now I realize how much damage is done not just to our generation but to many generations.C
Yoshitake recently retired again from his wedding and football photography business but at 77 is still in good health. Long-term exposure to radiation can be toxic, but Yoshitake, father of three and grandfather of four, insists he has had no ill effects.
“Do I have health issues,C he asked rhetorically with his customary grin. “Just this white hair.C
Correspondent John McReynolds can be reached at 736-6352 or email@example.com
Nov. 26, 2006